We arrived in Cannes – tired, smelly, and sick of this sailing nonsense. At least we had a bit of prime real estate to moor on for a few days, between Shamrock V and Moonbeam IV (nerve-racking, nappy-filling parking). I fancied adding “IIX” the name on our stern, just to get the upper hand, but reckoned my prank might not have gone down so well.
We welcomed the owner back on board, and our charge of guests arrived shortly after. They were good-natured and happy to be on board, and quickly settled into demolishing a table of food and sloshing Schnapps around on the teak.
The regatta commenced. A few of our crew headed off inland, but we were joined once again by Kat, neuroscientific culinary extraordinaire, eight-limbed goddess of the galley. Equipped with a polished spatula and a bizarre sense of moral obligation, she commenced battle against the formidable oven, the temptation of sleep, and the ceaseless demands, only to appear on deck several times a day bearing large platters of meticulously arranged hor d’oeuvre (I still don’t know what that means) and a smile on her face. We applauded.
The fleet raced almost every day. We always started in the ‘big boat’ class, with Shamrock, both the Moonbeams, Elena, and so on – some of the most expensive, prestigious sailing yachts in the world. Sometimes we even managed to keep pace with them for a while. The wind was variable but tended to get quite strong in the afternoons – one day the races were cancelled, which was a shame for us as we tend to do much better with more wind, being a heavily built boat with a lot less sail area than some.
There were many little boats out too, of course. They like to get in the way of the big ones, and sometimes get run over, but nobody seems to mind too much. Occasionally somebody yells something about being on starboard tack, but nobody really knows what that means, and the general consensus is just to stay the hell away from boats so large that the helmsman can’t see as far as the bowman.
The starting line is always the most stressful part of the race, and the biggest challenge is often just finding the damn thing. Generally the line is between a boat and a buoy, but the whole area is teeming with hundreds of vessels of all sizes and descriptions, and well as several dozen buoys of various colours, none of which match the buoy described in the Sailing Instructions (which is written in French and distributed by carrier pigeon). On the stern of each boat, several senior members of each crew fight over this useless booklet pretending they can read it, pointing wildly in all directions, waving the binoculars around, and yelling continuously. In the end, of course, everybody just follows the local French boats across the starting line, not least because to obstruct them would probably mean not being invited back next year.
We had a reasonable result in Cannes, and then sailed straight on to Saint Tropez, where the next regatta was to take place. Unfortunately, the weather turned. Several days of racing were cancelled, and the days we did go out were miserable, wet affairs.
However, there was plenty of excitement on the water. On the penultimate day of racing, there were no less than four dismastings. We witnessed two of them, one of which was a ‘Wally’ – an extremely expensive and stylish modern yacht, the rig of which must surely cost more than several small London townhouses. We saw their carbon fibre mast snap clean in the middle, and went to offer our assistance while one of their spreaders (still attached to the mast by a shroud) swung around wildly, threatening to decapitate anyone not huddled on the distant extremities of their deck.
The incessant rain made it necessary to spend a lot of time ashore in that old sailors refuge – the pub. Here, youthful terns and ageing albatrosses, bearded bosuns and skirted sail-trimmers, can come together in harmony – to pour extortionate elixir down their gullets, yell at the rugby, and take their tops off. Sailors clearly don’t need an excuse to be drunk, but if they are given one, they will take it wholeheartedly to the pub and buy it several rounds of beer.
Personally, the town of Saint Tropez did not particularly float my boat. Deck shoes and pastel cardigans, overpriced drinks and flashy cars, and far too many attractive, well-dressed people. It strives for exclusiveness, but all it achieves is a sort of unimaginative banality.
However, the crews are mostly down to earth and lovely, and it was with them that I spent my time, when not working. Some good ole’ friends from Cornwall were around, and the week flew by, despite the weather. Little did we know that while we were messing around quite happily in boats, the same rains that fell on our decks were causing huge floods in Cannes and Nice, and would be responsible for several deaths.